By Bill Browne, Manex Consultant

Lean is simple. It is a systematic approach to identify and eliminate waste through continuous improvement by flowing the product at the pull of the customer in pursuit of perfection.

The Lean Philosophy includes:

  1. A customer-first approach.
  2. An understanding that people are the most valuable resource.
  3. Utilizing Kaizen (a continuous improvement strategy).
  4. A shop-floor focus.

What is a Lean Culture?

A Lean culture includes the following key ingredients:

  • The vision is clearly communicated.
  • All employees are committed to continuous improvement.
  • Standards, accountability and expectations are clearly stated.
  • Change is constant.
  • A teaming environment exists.
  • Constant learning is the norm.
  • Leaders lead people, not manage them.

Why Does Lean Fail?

With all these key elements so easy to understand, why do many Lean initiatives fail? Generally, the overarching issue is resistance to change. Lean requires significant change. Some companies also run into the following problems implementing Lean:

  • Lean may not be immediately accepted or understood by the entire team.
  • The transformation process requires some risk taking.
  • Old habits are hard to break.
  • Lean is often considered the “flavor of the month” rather than a continuous program.
  • Lean concepts may seem too simple, but in reality, they are also difficult to implement and hard to sustain.

Human mindset, leadership, misconceptions and a traditional business environment are some of the most common barriers you may need to overcome while implementing Lean.

However, the single biggest reason for failure is YOU – the leader. Why would you cause Lean to fail?  Because the leader is responsible for:

  • Modeling appropriate behavior.
  • Enabling change.
  • Establishing Lean champions.
  • Communicating the overall direction.
  • Creating and implementing a plan to drive forward.
  • Creating a strong deployment strategy.
  • Practicing “go-see.”

Implementation will not happen unless it is enabled by leadership. Leaders will get what they model, demand or tolerate.

The second biggest reason for Lean failure is employee alignment. It is important to get the right talent on the (Lean) bus. Alignment of the people supporting the Lean transformation ensures success. The second single reason for failure to successfully transform a business to a Lean organization is the lack of alignment throughout the company.

The bottom line? Employees that do not support the required change need to look for other work that suits their style and personal needs.

The third reason for Lean failure is poor implementation. While implementing Lean, it’s important to:

  • Take baby steps.
  • Educate the team. Train, train and train some more. Use a train the trainer approach.
  • Ensure the project is not too large. (You don’t want to boil the ocean versus a cup of water.)
  • Use data to determine which project to fix. (Use what your customers and data tell you, not your gut feeling to run your business.) Don’t make the focus too large.
  • Provide the time and resources to do it right the first time.
    • Plan and budget (to pull team members off their daily jobs for Kaizen activities).
    • Celebrate successes.
    • Accept responsibility for failure when necessary.

What is the Recipe for Lean Success?

Leadership leads the transformation. Communicate, train and educate. Remember, change is difficult but necessary. A learning enterprise creates a cooperative work environment in which all stakeholders share common goals. Always support employee involvement and empowerment. Insure the right measurements are in place. Recognize and reward desired behavior and accomplishments. A cultural transformation is critical. Remember, to truly transform an organization into a Lean enterprise, a Lean culture is required.


About the Author

Bill Browne has over 37 years of extensive manufacturing experience and expertise in general management, manufacturing operations, quality systems, engineering, product development, and continuous improvement initiatives, including Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma. As an experienced change agent, he has led numerous process improvement initiatives resulting in top-line and bottom-line growth across a range of industry sectors and geographies, including China, Hong Kong and the UK.